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Works Thomas Girtin

Wroxeter: The Roman Wall

1798 - 1799

Primary Image: TG1353: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Wroxeter: The Roman Wall, 1798–99, graphite, watercolour and gum arabic on laid paper, on an original mount with a single blue line, 19.8 × 28.5 cm, 7 ⅞ × 11 ¼ in. Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum, Loan from George and Patti White.

Photo courtesy of Christie's (All Rights Reserved)

Description
Creator(s)
Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
Title
  • Wroxeter: The Roman Wall
Date
1798 - 1799
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and gum arabic on laid paper, on an original mount with a single blue line
Dimensions
19.8 × 28.5 cm, 7 ⅞ × 11 ¼ in
Mount Dimensions
28.6 × 37.5 cm, 11 ¼ × 14 ¾ in
Inscription

‘T. Girtin' lower right, on the original mount, by (?) Thomas Girtin; 'No.170’ lower left, on the original mount

Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Work after an Amateur Artist
Subject Terms
Ancient Ruins; Shropshire View

Collection
Catalogue Number
TG1353
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2016

Provenance

Guy Bellingham-Smith (1865–1949); D. C. Baskett (1897–1962); Iolo Aneurin Williams (1890–1962); ... Sotheby’s, 20 November 1986, lot 24, £5,500; Martyn Gregory Ltd, 1988; ... Spink & Son Ltd, London, 1996; Sotheby’s, 10 July 1997, lot 71, £26,450; Sotheby’s, New York, 26 January 2011, lot 651, unsold; Christie's, 5 July 2016, lot 99, £52,500; bought by George and Patti White; lent to Harvard Art Museums, 2023

Exhibition History

Martyn Gregory, London, 1988, no.61; Spink’s, London, 1996, no.14

Bibliography

Wright, 2022, pp.77–82

About this Work

This modestly scaled watercolour depicts the surviving fragment of a wall in the Roman town of Viroconium, with the church of St Andrew's, Wroxeter framed in the distance. Viroconium was the fourth largest Roman town in Britain, but the remains revealed by the archaeological work that began in 1788 were not spectacular, and Girtin certainly made the most visually of the short length of wall standing alongside the ancient baths. The watercolour adopts a close viewpoint and looks south west from a darkened foreground, and a fragment of the mighty Roman empire is used to frame a sunlit view of an English village in a way that offers the sort of contrast that is found in many of Girtin’s depictions of ruins and that was no doubt calculated to evoke thoughts on the transience of power and wealth. Nevertheless, this seems an unlikely subject for Girtin, whose views of the nation’s historical monuments do not generally include classical remains. Wroxeter, in Shropshire, is near the Welsh border, and it may be that Girtin sketched the view either travelling to or from North Wales in the summer of 1798, but it is hard to believe that the artist’s eye was caught by the scene in passing, and the subject was surely prompted by a patron who had local knowledge and who wished for a view that otherwise had little to recommend it visually.

William Pearson (1772–1849), etching, 'Roman Wall, at Wroxeter' for <i>Select Views of the Antiquities of Shropshire</i>, pl.13, 1807, 14.7 × 18.8 cm, 5 ¾ × 7 ⅜ in. Shropshire Archives (PR/3/238).

The identity of that first owner is unfortunately not known, but there is nonetheless some evidence to link the work with one of Girtin’s closest followers, the artist William Pearson (1772–1849). He produced an etching of the same view of Wroxeter (see figure 1) and included it in his book Select Views of the Antiquities of Shropshire (Pearson, 1807, pl.13). The etching is so close to Girtin’s watercolour, down to details such as the same line of shadow falling diagonally across the wall to the right, that, initially at least, I assumed it to be a copy from Girtin’s drawing, and it is easy to imagine that the drawing was commissioned from him for the purpose of producing a print. However, there are enough differences to suggest another option. The foliage seen on the riverbank in the etching, together with the figures and the position of the church viewed through the opening, display slight variations in their form; however, since none of them are improvements on the Girtin drawing, it appears that the two images share the same common source, which the two artists developed in slightly different ways. This may have been an untraced on-the-spot drawing by Girtin himself, but equally, as with so many of his more obscure topographical views, it could be that he worked from a sketch by another artist, possibly even Pearson himself. And this is supported by the recent suggestion that the foreground in both Girtin and Pearson’s views is invented (Wright, 2022, p.79). A pair of watercolours produced by the Revd. Edward Williams in 1788 shows a flat ploughed field extending right up to the wall with no suggestion of a riverbank and the church is placed correctly at a distance. The evidence is hardly overwhelming, but on balance I suspect that both this watercolour and another Shropshire view (TG1352) may not have been the direct outcomes of Girtin’s 1798 trip to Wales after all.

1798 - 1799

The Red Castle, from Hawk Lake, with a Distant View of Shrewsbury

TG1352

by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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